Six Legs Walking: Notes from an Entomological Life

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WINNER — 2020 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Autobiography/Memoir

This is a most interesting read, scientific discussion with the occasional diversion into personality and comedy . . . Most of all, her patient dedicated passion for detailed observation of the minute interactions between predator and insect prey impressed this reviewer. —Entomologist’s Gazette

The book is a mixture of the human and non-human stories that make up a biologist’s life, where the creatures we study provide as much drama and food for thought as do the humans in our lives. —American Entomologist

Like the painted lady butterflies that fascinated her as a child in Queensland, Australia, entomologist Elizabeth Bernays has lived a migratory adventure, following her scientific curiosity around the world before landing at the University of Arizona. In Six Legs Walking: Notes from an Entomological Life, Bernays takes us along on her evolution from backward child to accomplished biologist as she explores scholarship, culture, and love, all while immersed in the wonders of some of the smallest creatures on earth.

Young Liz becomes enamored with insects in her home garden while working beside her mother, who worries over her daughter being deemed intellectually impaired. An introduction to a working scientist and the encouragement of a beloved teacher inspire Elizabeth to go on to the University of Queensland to study biology.

While in graduate school in London, Elizabeth meets established entomologist Reg Chapman, who will become her partner in work and in life. As a British government scientist, she researches the habits of bugs in the hopes of finding biological solutions to controlling pests that damage crops in Nigeria, India, and Mali, working alongside local scientists and discovering the diversity of human cultural customs.

As a professor at the University of California Berkeley, she learns about American individualism and advocating on her own behalf. At last, Bernays settles in the Sonoran Desert, where she is visited by a hawk moth that launches her on yet another entomological expedition.

In this collection of autobiographical essays, Elizabeth Bernays educates readers on the progression and significance of biological research while sharing her sheer joy in the discoveries she makes. Six Legs Walking is the inspiring story of one woman’s lifelong love affair with science.

Press Kit/Reviews/Interviews

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Elizabeth Bernays transforms the structure and function of grasshopper jaws into poetry, metamorphoses hours of insect observations into applecart-upsetting scientific directions, and shares her life with passion and humility. It is an honor to view the marvel of insects through her creative magnifying lens.

Marla Spivak, entomologist, 2010 MacArthur Fellow

Six Legs Walking: Notes from an Entomological Life is a sparkling series of linked essays by a famous entomologist with a lifetime of close observation and experience behind her.

The story ranges across her childhood in Queensland, her years in London teaching in the British public schools, and her later professional work and travels in exotic places. Through it all, insects—moths, butterflies, locusts—fly or walk on six legs. One section could have been titled “Love Among the Grasshoppers.”

And while Bernays discusses some technical elements of her work searching for ways to protect particular plants from insect predators, the book is never dull. She speaks of “the image of insects, those primordial creatures that had been my passion for so long” and the effect the insects have had upon her life. Passion is the right word.

Her mother says, “I only want you to be normal, darling,” meaning “like everybody else,” but it is clear that this precocious child and brilliant woman will never be average and that her work with insects will elevate her life to a very special place and her writing to a very special level. A terrific book.

Richard Shelton, author of Going Back to Bisbee and Nobody Rich or Famous

Elizabeth Bernays has written a beautiful memoir of a life in science that begins with her as a wonder-struck child in Queensland observing butterflies in her mother’s garden. Her work as a distinguished entomologist takes her to England, India, Mali, Nigeria, and, finally, to settle in the US. Her sense of amazement at nature and boundless curiosity makes this account of the attention, inventiveness, global spirit, and fun of a life in science shine. Insects, under her devoted scrutiny, prove to be spellbinding theater—“a performance of great skill.” This book offers a window into how and why to care about the smallest among us.

Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit

The self, for Elizabeth Bernays, is not the subject of this beautiful, precise book, but its instrument. When turned on the natural world and the humans who study it, it reveals the microscopic folds and turns of an entomological life, which is to say just a life that, like all our lives, shows itself to be spectacular when observed closely enough. Read these essays and, like Bernays, you’ll get obsessed with hawk moth larvae, leaf texture, the tiny feelers around the mouths of locusts, the sex lives of entomologists in London in the ’70s, and the historical blight of the prickly pear in Australia, just to pick a few highlights. “Finding satisfying answers to unsolved problems has given me intense pleasure and is often why scientists become so absorbed in their work,” Bernays tells us. The pleasure is shared, and it’s yours for the taking.

Ander Monson, author of Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries

I very much enjoyed reading these engagingly written memoirs of a great naturalist and superb entomologist. Her deep love for nature, the acute commitment to her pioneering research, and her warm sense for the people around her shine through on every page.

Bert Hölldobler, Pulitzer Prize–winning coauthor of The Ants

Elizabeth Bernays transports the reader through astonishing times and places, extolling the lowly creatures and the uncelebrated people who study them. Her memoir illustrates what drives a life in science—persistent curiosity and a healthy dose of fearlessness. These serve her well in the face of obstacles encountered as she makes her way to success as a rare female researcher. She tells the story of how interest in the natural world and in people can bring joy at each stage of life, from childhood gardening in Queensland to scientific expeditions in India and Africa. Most enjoyable are her clear-sighted observations and original thoughts about living things and about the connections between insects and people she meets along the way.

Nancy A. Moran, evolutionary biologist, 1997 MacArthur Fellow

Elizabeth Bernays’s keen curiosity about the lives of insects transforms seemingly academic questions about how they feed, mate, and reproduce into a grand pageantry that spans continents. She brings the same amazed attention to human behavior as well, as her field work takes her from her childhood home in Australia to far-flung places like Hungary, India, Nigeria, and, at last, the desert Southwest. Deftly, Bernays unravels the process of scientific inquiry, mindful of the capricious influences of gender, culture, and funding, but without losing sight of its joy. Six Legs Walking is the kind of book that will make you look at a blade of grass or a cactus pad with new eyes, searching for the “small wonders” that abound within its pages.

Melissa L. Sevigny, author of Mythical River and Under Desert Skies

From her childhood in Australia and schooling in England to the wilds of Hungary, India, and Africa, author Elizabeth Bernays asks readers to become her entomological lab assistant, to suffer the tropical heat and grime and army ant bites of a true field researcher. Six Legs Walking is a fascinating, beautifully descriptive, and lyrical narrative that captures the essence of some strange agricultural pests and the exotic places where they dwell.  

Like her six-legged subjects molting into fresh skin, the author writes of a life of renewed growth and profound discovery. Bernays is Vanessa, the painted lady butterfly, the world-wandering, determined, and dependable explorer of all things fragrant and beautiful and equally destructive. Wrap yourself in mosquito netting and sink into this bug woman’s words and you will be transformed.

Ken Lamberton, author of Wilderness and Razor Wire and Chasing Arizona

What an entomological life, with so much humanity! This book is literature and science, personal and professional, and filled with adventure and discovery. I recommend it heartily to all interested in biography, scientific journeys, and those beautiful bugs.

Anurag Agrawal, James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies, Cornell University, and author of Monarchs and Milkweed

Six Legs Walking: Notes from an Entomological Life is a highly enjoyable romp through the metamorphosis of an eminent plant/insect ecologist. You experience her early instars in Australia in the garden with her mother, who nurtured her fascination with insects. You watch the growth of a young graduate student in “swinging” ’60s London taught by the man who would become her beloved soulmate, Reg Chapman. And you see her transition to a professional entomologist in the Anti-Locust Research Centre, traveling to India, Nigeria, and Mali while always in search of the perfect insect to address fundamental questions in ecology. She molts into a fiery full professor at the University of California, Berkeley and eventually a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona. Six Legs Walking should be in the library of all young ecologists; it is a wonderful example of one person’s passion for science and the power of careful observation.

The writing is lush and sensual. You feel the heat of the desert, you see the colors of the flowers, you hear the tick-tick of her grasshoppers and smell the resinous creosote bushes after a desert rain. You feel her triumphs and her losses. Her final transformation is into a writer’s writer. I invite you to enjoy her life’s adventures as I have.

William E. Conner, professor of biology, Wake Forest University

Elizabeth Bernays and Reg Chapman imposed their mark on natural science and renewed the field of insect-plant evolution by introducing new partners in this duet—herbivore enemies, which we realize now are major contributors to evolution. In this touching book, Elizabeth comes back to the genesis of their ideas and tells us more about the backstage of this adventure, letting us peep into how these ideas emerged and permeated their life together. She also tells us more about her fascination with insects and passes to us her love of flowers and nature. A must read.

Frédéric Marion-Poll, entomologist and neurobiologist

This book is an amazing way to fall into lives different from one’s own—the lives of insects, of course, but also those of growing up in mid-twentieth century Australia, of becoming a professional scientist when women just didn’t do that kind of thing, of working in Mali, Nigeria, and India. The essays range from personal to scientific, often within the same page, with equally fascinating details about the lives of people and insects. Among other things, they will make you ponder the mortal dangers of eating, even of simply munching, leaves; caterpillars never know when death will come via predators attracted by the mere scent of them chewing. Anyone with an interest in food, life, love, and death will enjoy Six Legs Walking.

Marlene Zuk, professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior, University of Minnesota

A memoir, a love letter, and a paean to the joy of a life in discovery refracted through the many-faceted eyes of insects. From the evocation of a subtropical Brisbane childhood, to lying in the mud at dawn in India observing minute caterpillars crawl the stems of sorghum plants, to watching the ruthless killing by tiny predators and parasites as they shape the evolution of plants and the insects that eat them, Elizabeth Bernays has taken us deep into her remarkable life. Why would she and those of us who are similarly touched devote a life to such things? Read the book to find out.

Stephen J. Simpson, academic director, Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney

Elizabeth Bernays takes us with her from Australia to England, then Africa and India, to Berkeley, California, and, finally, Arizona as we follow her metamorphosis from shy, “slow” schoolgirl to world-renowned entomologist and university professor, all in the company and thrall of insects. These engaging essays let us share in the development of Bernays’s ground-breaking contributions to the field of plant-insect interactions; we are right there with her as she watches a tiny locust hatching from its egg, follows the fate of each of the 210 eggs laid by a female hawk moth on a desert trumpet plant, and observes predatory wasps attacking caterpillars amongst the leaves. For those of us who already love insects, this book is a sheer delight; for those who haven’t yet discovered the joys of watching our six-legged companions on the planet, Elizabeth Bernays is the ideal guide to the wonder of the unexpected observation; the deep satisfaction of exploration, experimentation, and discovery; and the ephemeral beauty of life. 

Martha R. Weiss, professor of biology, Georgetown University

For a nonscientist like me, Six Legs Walking is a captivating look at the study of insects through the eyes of a globe-trotting entomologist. Dr. Bernays brings the reader close up to some of the smallest yet significant creatures in our ecosystem. Not only will you learn about the feeding habits of grasshoppers and moths, you will be drawn into deep reverie for the small wonders that populate our natural world while bearing witness to our interconnectedness.

Gail Browne, University of Arizona Poetry Center